Dorothea Tanning 1910–2012
Cotton, cardboard, wool and plastic balls
385 x 1089 x 535 mm
Purchased (Grant-in-Aid) 2003
Purchased from the artist, New York, by Tate in 2003.
Nue couchée is one of a group of soft sculptures made by Tanning between 1969 and 1970 which evoke the female body. They culminate in the multi-part, room sized installation Hotel du Pavot, Chambre 202 (Pavot Hotel, Room 202) 1970 (Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris). Tanning had already created Pincushion to Serve as Fetish in 1965 (Tate T07988) as a means of experimenting with fabric as a medium for sculpture. However, she has recalled how, while attending a concert performance of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s (1928–2007) Hymnen in Paris in 1969, she had a vision of the as yet unmade sculptures: ‘spinning among the unearthly sounds of Hymnen were the earthly ... organic shapes that I would make, had to make, out of cloth and wool.’1 In this group of sculptures Tanning arguably consolidated thirty years of painting by transforming her cast of previously two-dimensional characters into a reality in three dimensions. As she relates, ‘in league with my sewing machine, I pulled and stitched and stuffed the banal materials of human clothing in a transformative process where the most astonished witness was myself. Almost before I knew it I had an “oeuvre”, a family of sculptures that were the avatars, three-dimensional ones, of my two-dimensional painted universe’.2 Woven into these hybrid and anthropomorphic cloth sculptures are the key themes of Tanning’s work: an interest in the dark, psychological dramas inherent in gothic fiction and fairy tales; a preoccupation with the supernatural in everyday life; and an obsession with depicting the female body and the experience of female embodiment.
The fluid and metamorphic pose of Nue couchée is prefigured in the rounded female forms of paintings such as Status Quo 1965 (collection of the artist) and A la Dérive 1967 (private collection), which involve configurations of the body through distortion and contraction. The casual placement of its many folding arms suggests movement, counterbalancing the large buttocks at the other end that lie, literally, legless and heavy. As Tate curator Jennifer Mundy points out, Nue couchée ‘relates closely to Tanning’s treatment of the body in her paintings from the late 1950s and 1960s which evoke bodies and couplings in scenes suggestive of delirium and abandon’.3 The fleshy pink fabric and the physically visceral aspect of the sculpture, with its table-tennis balls for spinal vertebrae, make it similar to the figures which emerge and disappear through the walls of Hotel du Pavot, Chambre 202.
However, the provocative shape and positioning of the buttocks in Nue couchée bring it closer in tone to another of Tanning’s sculptures from 1970, entitled Emma (collection of the artist). Referring to Gustave Flaubert’s (1821–1880) heroine from his landmark novel Madame Bovary, this work depicts comprises off-white lace surrounding, or perhaps exposing, an ambiguous pink mound of fabric (flesh) with seams and depressions suggestive of a belly or buttocks. As with the folds of fabric which form the buttocks of Nue couchée, the viewer has the impression of seeing something private, hidden or sexual, yet which is outrageously flaunted. The fact that neither figure represents a complete body recalls surrealist photography, in which the female body was usually distorted or fragmented, often with a focus on the rear. However, according to Tanning, her sculptures are ‘not physically threatening or threatened, they are not real, [they are] more like the creatures in fairy tales than [either] the tortured dissections of Freudian dreams’ or the traditional odalisque (reclining nude) of visual desire.4
Despite the fact that Nue couchée is replete with associations that revolve around sexuality and the female body, Tanning reinforces her view that the creative wellspring for the work lies in the context of fantasy tales and the fabric of her own imagination. In a letter to Tate curator Jennifer Mundy, the artist ‘recalled with pleasure the way the sculpture was once displayed at the Zabriskie Gallery, New York – placed on a low plinth and encased in Perspex – and how this had reminded her of a scene described in Phantastes (1858) by the Scots writer George MacDonald’.5 In the novel, the hero enters a cave in which he finds a block of alabaster through which he can faintly see the form of a woman. As so often in popular mythology, the hero sings to her and, in bringing her to life, narrowly escapes his own death. Interestingly, this common narrative theme provides an analogy for the simultaneously rejuvenative and destructive potential of the creative process. In emphasizing the importance of her own creative impulse, Dorothea Tanning states her belief that any understanding of her work must come through direct interaction with the imagination of the viewer, a process which should be unhampered by reason and the logical limitations of everyday reality: ‘I want people to look with three eyes ... two outside and one inside. I want their minds to wander and explore just as much as my own.’6 Thus, the artist and viewer are inextricably bound together in the work.
March 2010, revised July 2012
Supported by The AHRC Research Centre for the Study of Surrealism and its Legacies.